JANET PLANET Review: A Lovely Window Into Small Moments

Julianne Nicholson, Will Patton, and Zoe Ziegler star in Annie Baker's directorial debut.

Contributing Writer; Chicago, IL (@anotherKyleL)
JANET PLANET Review: A Lovely Window Into Small Moments

Janet Planet starts with a "you're in or you're out" scene.

Eleven-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) quietly walks from a summer camp bunk across a field to a building with a payphone, dials a number, waits, and has a brief conversation that includes "I'm going to kill myself." It's a perfect opening that clues audiences into the film's commitment to silence (or at least to non-speaking) and a humor that's dark enough to keep the film from falling under the 'quirky' label that's often thrown around for independent comedies.

The story, such as it is, follows Lacy and her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson) over the summer of 1991 as Janet invites and disinvites three people to stay at their home. And what a home it is; set among the bright greens of rural Massachusetts summer, the dark green home, full of windows and high ceilings, is a beautiful space in which to spend most of the movie.

Location Manager Meredith Crowley and her team deserve a Location Managers Guild Award (an award and guild I discovered because I wanted to be sure Crowley and her team might be properly recognized) for their work here.

Writer and first time director Annie Baker, whose work as a playwright has garnered her a Pulitzer and a MacArthur Fellowship, shows an incredible talent for framing. Her compositions emphasize that the home is a place of comfort open to all, while also fitting very specifically within Janet's hippie aesthetic. Extreme close-ups on faces, or parts of faces, in extended silences allow the actors to simply exist as human beings in the quiet moments of life. Whether these are car rides, dinners, or walks to piano lessons, Baker invites us to just be with Lacy, Janet, and their transient guests.

Those guests are Janet's boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), recently rediscovered old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo), and Avi (Elias Koteas, who for the sake of not spoiling this slice-of-life movie, shall remain undescribed). Each of them brings something different into Janet and Lacy's lives, whether they're interested in Lacy or not. Some of them are rather loquacious, with monologues well over a minute long, others laconic, with perhaps no more than 100 spoken words in the film.

Baker's shift from stage to screen soars with her clear excitement about the possibility of forcing people's attention on specific viewpoints. Her frames often leave characters on the edges, centering open space instead, or remain static, allowing characters to traverse them many times in a single shot. But her monologues, written for characters who are seemingly lifelong devotees of a culture and ideology built on the concept that love can conquer all, are often more tedious than any of the film's periods without speech.

Many of the long speeches also raise the question of whether or not these characters are meant to be taken seriously or as jokes about the silliness of middle-aged people holding onto a revolution that failed. Either way, the film has empathy for these characters, it's just difficult to pin down what's meant to be meaningful and what's meant to be funny; it's also entirely possible that they are meant to be both.

Whether or not their ideas and words are meant to be thesis statements from the film, their art is unimpeachable. When Lacy and Janet attend a show directed by Avi and featuring Regina in a major role, Baker's camera marvels at the oversized and lovingly handmade animal costumes several performers wear. The music these hippies create is more haunting and atmospheric than anything the 1990s jam bands would make, drawing their audience, both the one in the film and the one watching the film, into a beautiful, otherworldly sonic landscape.

While Janet's name is in the title, Janet Planet is really Lacy's film, and Ziegler is fully capable of carrying the film on her small shoulders. Her often hilariously matter-of-fact line deliveries mark her as a rising comedy actor.

Yet her ability to use her eyes as tools of communication, whether with other characters or with the audience through what she chooses to look at and how, makes her a truly remarkable young actor. Her performance makes the film's speechless scenes its most powerful, allowing us to glimpse how meaningful these little moments of togetherness and solitude are, not only for her life, but for all of our lives.

The film is now playing in select U.S. theaters, via A24 Films.

Janet Planet

  • Annie Baker
  • Annie Baker
  • Zoe Ziegler
  • Luke Philip Bosco
  • June Walker Grossman
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Annie BakerJulianne NicholsonWill PattonZoe ZieglerLuke Philip BoscoJune Walker GrossmanDrama

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